Every week leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Koert DebeufRepresentative of the European Parliament’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe
Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power a decade ago, Turkey has definitely become more Western.
However, for a few years it has been sliding away from the West again. One of the reasons for this is the country's relationship with the EU. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP seem to have replaced their European dream with an Ottoman dream. A short chronology explains why.
April 2004: Referendum on the Annan Plan for resolving the Cyprus dispute. Turkish Cypriots vote in favor, Greek Cypriots against.
May 2004: Greek-speaking Cyprus becomes a member of the EU. It starts to block the opening of some chapters of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations.
December 2004: The EU decides to start accession negotiations with Turkey.
October 2005: EU accession talks with Turkey begin.
November 2005: Angela Merkel is elected as German chancellor. She openly opposes Turkey’s EU accession.
May 2007: Nicolas Sarkozy is elected president of France. He too opposes Turkish EU membership.
May 2010: Merkel rules out the possibility of Turkey becoming an EU member.
September 2010: In a referendum, 60 percent of Turks vote in favor of a more European constitution.
December 2010: The Arab Spring starts.
October 2011: Elections in Tunisia lead to a victory for Islamist parties.
These developments have led an increasing number of frustrated Turks to believe that their country will never be a full EU member. It is therefore no wonder that, since 2010, the AKP—and more specifically Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu—has developed a new strategy based more on Islam than on Western ideals.
Europe created Turkey’s current problem and can still solve it. But it has no time to lose.
Ben JudahVisiting fellow at the European Stability Initiative
Turkey isn’t going anywhere. Since the current protests kicked off in Gezi Park, the Turkish state has behaved with the same police brutality it has always dished out to excited crowds demanding something different: tear gas, truncheons, and thousands of overnight detentions. Ankara is behaving more like its old self—the militarized and heavy-handed regimes of the past—than something more, or less, Western.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Erdoğan has a point when he says that his police has been gentler, more restrained, and more apologetic than in the past. This is because he is comparing himself with how protestors were treated by the military—that is, shot at with live rounds, as in Taksim Square in 1977. Regardless, the police has shown nothing like the EU standard of behavior that was hoped for from Erdoğan’s AKP.
Turkey hasn’t changed that much after all. These kinds of protests have been seen before. In 2007, over 350,000 demonstrators marched on the secularist bastions of Izmir and Ankara. There have been wildly idealistic, dreamy protests in Taksim Square before—think back to the Maoists of the 1970s. And, out in Anatolia, protests in Dersim and Hatay have an unpleasant sectarian tinge. Furthermore, on a smaller scale, this kind of brutal policing takes place every day in Turkey; it just never makes the headlines.
Turkey might be becoming more Russian, with Erdoğan’s control of the media echoing that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, again, Erdoğan is playing more by the textbooks of previous Turkish rulers, who bribed oligarchs with juicy contracts for adulating coverage in their papers and TV chains.
In the wider world, it also looks likely that Turkey isn’t heading anywhere fast. The country’s EU accession will probably remain frozen for the duration of Erdoğan’s tenure. The men he appointed as negotiators aren’t committed, and his angry outburst at visiting European diplomats, academics, and think tankers last week has dashed his image. In the Arab world, Erdoğan’s adventures have hit the buffers too. In Tunis and Cairo, he is hailed as a hero but not a leader, while further east his pro-Sunni policies have earned him the enmity of both Damascus and Baghdad.
Alexander Graf LambsdorffVice president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the European Parliament
Is Turkey turning East or West? In the past, this question was about the orientation of Turkey’s foreign policy and rested on the assumption that Turkey would shift its strategic interest away from Europe and toward its East. The answer was generally that Turkey needed to strike a delicate but important balance between East and West.
Yet the events of the last two weeks show that Turkey has become far more Western internally than anybody expected. That includes Prime Minister Erdoğan, who is now often compared with Russia’s distinctly Eastern President Vladimir Putin—and for good reason.
Protesters from very different parts of society are taking to the streets throughout Turkey. Showing full awareness of their civil liberties, they are seeking to defend their individual freedoms, as well as respect for pluralism, their heritage, and the environment. Turkey is witnessing a new form of grassroots democracy, with people expressing dissatisfaction with the government’s policies and style of policymaking. The sheer size and persistence of this protest show that these parts of Turkish society will not give in easily.
The protesters’ demands are a fundamental element of a functioning and healthy democracy that requires an appropriate response. The AKP needs to accept that democracy consists of various strands, and that governments not only need to take opposing views seriously, but must also develop policies accordingly. It will be difficult to turn back the clock and pretend that these strong, popular voices can be ignored—unless Erdoğan wants to risk even more internal polarization or even lasting instability.
The only way forward is to accept a pluralistic Turkish society and to finally fully embrace the Western concept of liberal democracy. Pursuing an Eastern, authoritarian approach would be a dangerous choice for Erdoğan—and for Turkey.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The current protests in several Turkish cities have received massive coverage worldwide and represent a considerable loss for Turkey in several ways:
- The image of a successful AKP has been seriously dented by its handling of the crisis (little respect for differences of opinion, uncontrolled police violence, media restrictions, polarizing narrative) and more generally by its model of political and economic development (preference for a “ballot box only” form of democracy, “majoritarian” rule, lack of local consultation in urban projects, ultraliberal consumerist policy).
- Financial markets are now worried about Turkey’s political course, resulting in strains on the refinancing of Turkey’s public debt and on much-needed foreign direct investment.
- Turkey’s NATO allies are bound to review their previously confident assessment of a predictable, moderately Islamist partner with strong economic growth and a stable government. The prime minister’s fiery rhetoric and uncompromising posture generates new questions.
- The EU and the United States now wonder what course the Turkish government’s promised “advanced democracy” will take. The blatant police excesses and rejection of serious civic dialogue are particular causes for concern. Recent statements by the European Commissioner for Enlargement Štefan Füle in Istanbul and by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton have clearly signaled dissatisfaction. The debate on Turkey in the European Parliament on June 12 is of the essence.
On the international stage, the key issue now is Turkey’s image with its Western allies: the country’s economic outlook, its long-term stability in Western terms, and the concept of a pluralistic society.
Unless Ankara takes quick and decisive steps toward a mature, inclusive concept of Turkish society, the government faces the prospect of a downgraded image abroad and lasting trouble at home. By calling the protests an international plot, the government is only aggravating the situation.
Hugh PopeDirector of the Turkey/Cyprus Project at International Crisis Group
The protests sweeping several Turkish cities are like Turkey’s foreign policy: capable of being compared with many things, but proof that the country is more than half European, and part of the West.
There are a few superficial parallels to Cairo’s Tahrir Square or Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. But closer examination reveals the unrest to be more like the turning point for the UK’s Margaret Thatcher after ten years in power, the “occupy” movement in Wall Street, or the German Pirate Party’s resentment of tired old opposition parties. Indeed, visitors from Europe say the humor, fearlessness, and positive energy of the protests have made Turkey seem much closer to them.
The initial failure of Turkey’s media to cover the events was a shocking reminder of the limits Turkey places on freedom of expression, but the muzzling only lasted a few days. Similarly, the protests in part represent secular reaction to the government’s increasingly Islamist tone, which some might see as a non-Western characteristic. But the protests are also about divisions between rich and poor, between urbanized rural populations and urban middle classes, or between environmentalists and proponents of massive concrete infrastructure projects.
Turkey has always hewn to a lonely path: a medium-sized, developing country that is part of many worlds but not wholly part of any. But nearly half of Turkey’s trade is with European countries, 4–5 million Turks live in Europe, and two-thirds of foreign investment comes from EU states. And whatever its other dalliances, Turkey’s main strategic bet is with the United States and NATO.
Indeed, the groups that jostle with each other at the Istanbul protests are chiefly seeking more freedom of expression, less police strong-arm tactics, and more open government. In the long term, the fact that this constituency has at last found the courage to raise its voice may breathe new life into the best-proven way to reach these standards: a relaunch of Turkey’s stalled EU negotiating process and a firm reengagement with its Western partners.
Paweł ŚwiebodaPresident of demosEUROPA
Whether Turkey’s own outlook is turning more Western or less, the real issue is what role the EU can play in rescuing Turkish democracy.
Something much bigger is at stake in Turkey than the country’s immediate fortunes, including the prospects of Prime Minister Erdoğan. The West risks losing an intermediary with the Muslim world and the best possible role model for the transformations unleashed by the Arab Spring.
The jury is still out on how the protests will end. However, every day that the Turkish police displays excessive force against protesters while the government refuses to move an inch, the ruling party’s claim of democratic governance becomes weaker.
Opponents of Turkey’s EU accession have just been handed a powerful argument. For them, Istanbul’s Taksim Square will become a symbol of all that sets Turkey and the EU apart. The reality is that events in Turkey have vindicated the EU’s insistence on the rule of law and democracy. These values may not have been at the forefront of discussions with Turkey in recent years, but the EU has not been blinded by Turkey’s spectacular rise either. The European Commission’s progress report from last fall provides a relatively detailed account of the situation in Turkey with regard to civil, political and human rights.
The EU should see the current situation as an opportunity to revamp its transformative power toward the most weighty candidate country. Instead of looking down on Turkey, the EU should offer its services in addressing some of the more deep-seated problems of Turkish democracy.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
Turkey has been engaged in an explicitly Westernizing project since the time of the country’s founder, Atatürk.
That project stalled when the main Westernizing institution, the military, became an obstacle to further alignment with key Western liberal values like the rule of law, freedom of speech, and the peaceful alternation of power. The military was the guardian of the separation between mosque and state, another core liberal value. But the desecularization of Turkish society turned the army into an illiberal institution, even though it remained deeply Western in its orientation and mission.
The AKP government under Prime Minister Erdoğan, along with the EU through its role in Turkey’s accession negotiations, furthered the Westernization of Turkish civil society by creating a Western-style civilian-military relationship.
But it now seems evident that this modernization project was simply designed to replace one set of elites and values with another. The use of majoritarian democracy has undermined the basic values of a liberal society. Today, Turkey is facing a pivotal moment in its long-term Westernization—and at a time when the EU’s influence is at a low ebb in Turkey.
Erdoğan may choose to insist on majoritarian rule, and to continue to mix religion and politics and to undermine women’s rights. If that happens, Turkey faces the very real danger of becoming decidedly less Western and, in effect, of slipping back into the Middle East.
Sinan ÜlgenVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The question of whether Turkey is becoming more Western or less hinges on how Prime Minister Erdoğan reacts to current events.
There is a traditional cleavage in Turkish society between the conservatives/Islamists and the liberals/secularists. The era of the ruling AKP has witnessed a transition of power from the latter group to the former. By and large, this transition went hand in hand with a drive to democratize the country. Turkey’s EU membership prospects were a catalyst for those reforms.
But, especially since the 2011 elections, when the AKP was reelected with 49 percent of the vote, Erdoğan has adopted a leadership style based on majority rule. He has also used his parliamentary majority to implement new policies that many see as imposing his stiflingly conservative views on Turkish society. The current wave of protests is a reaction by Turkish society against Erdoğan’s style of paternalistic leadership, which increasingly limits the scope of individual choice.
Turkey now faces a critical choice. If the government and, in particular, Erdoğan can fully assess and understand the factors that have led to the current reactionism and can change their mode of governance, Turkish democracy will benefit greatly. Turkey will then continue to improve its democratic standards, having demonstrated the dynamism of its pluralistic civil society intent on protecting individual freedoms.
However, an alternative scenario of increasing polarization cannot be ruled out. Erdoğan remains unfazed and may keep up his defiant attitude, which will only further divide Turkish society and weaken Turkey’s ties to the West.